5 ways to help your child master public speaking

Tips on how to engage with an audience from a young age

Schoolgirl at front of elementary class with teacher

One of my favourite jokes by comedian Jerry Seinfeld is about people’s fear of public speaking. It goes like this: “According to most studies, people’s number one fear is public speaking. Number two is death. Death is number two. Does that sound right? This means to the average person, if you go to a funeral, you’re better off in the casket than doing the eulogy.”

Maybe one of the reasons that adults are so scared of public speaking is that they weren’t taught strategies from a young age. Katherine Pebley O’Neal (photo at right), author of the children’s book Public Speaking: 7 Steps to Writing and Delivering a Great Speech, says public speaking is a skill that is rarely taught, but is so valuable in the adult world.

“If we teach our young students how to engage an audience with confidence, they can use the skills to enhance any profession they choose,” she said.

In today’s high-tech environment, kids will need to gain communication skills across several mediums. More employers now conduct video interviews or ask job candidates to turn in video introductions. Despite our society’s growing reliance on text-talk, our kids must still learn how to speak on the phone effectively, present in front of a group, video conference and communicate professionally to audiences across social media. And kids who have learned to express themselves well will stand out in a competitive job market.

“Things are changing in our educational paradigm where it’s not just about going to school and getting a job,” says Sarah L. Cook, co-author of The Parents’ Guide to Raising CEO Kids. “Kids need to have some entrepreneurial skills to even land a job. They need to be able to engage with people confidently. Public speaking allows them to show that confidence.”

Physical signs of limelight-related stress include uncontrollable shaking, hyperventilating, sweating, flushed face and even short-term memory loss. “It’s a fear of failure,” Cook says. “A fear of public rejection. Are people going to laugh at me? Are they going to boo me? Are they going to ignore me?”

Nervousness before a presentation is normal, but if your child is paralyzed with fear, skipping classes or avoiding extracurricular activities that require public speaking, consult with a child psychologist. Cognitive behavioral techniques like challenging negative thinking, breathing and relaxation exercises and supportive coaching can help.

The following five tips may help parents teach kids how to reduce their fears of public speaking.

1 –Use technology. A child’s first and friendliest audiences include her family and friends. Frequent invitations for her to talk on the phone or the webcam to relatives can ease even a shy child’s initial communication inhibitions. Also, use your video camera and ask your kids questions. This strategy helps kids get comfortable in front of a camera.

2  –Open the floor at mealtime. Suggest each member of your family take turns reciting a joke, story, prayer or poem during dinner. Listen carefully to your kids and acknowledge their efforts. When kids feel that parents are truly paying attention, their confidence blossoms.

3 –Encourage show-and-tell. Show-and-tell is an excellent introduction to public speaking in a friendly group setting. Most kids love to take something meaningful and share it with their friends.

4 –Seek out organized opportunities. Enroll your child in activities like drama, scouting or science fairs.  These activities offer leadership roles in a supportive environment that require participants to get in front of an audience. Find out if there is a debating course or camp in your area.

5 –Practice. Preparation and practice is necessary to succeed. By writing out what they’d like to say ahead of time and creating visual aids, kids can learn to organize their thoughts.  “And if they can present their information with pizzazz, the entire class will actually learn something from their efforts,” O’Neal says.

Your child will have more fun presenting if the audience is engaged, too. Encourage your kids to practice their presentations ahead of time, whether in front of a mirror, the family or a video camera. “Parents can boost confidence by listening to their child practice his or her speech many times,” O’Neal says. “They can remind their child to make eye contact and to smile. The final two or three run-throughs should be met with only praise.”